Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

personal support

The BraBar and Panterie gives women a lift in more ways than one

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THIS weekend, as thousands of Winnipeggers march in support of The Weekend to End Breast Cancer, local businesswoman Sharon Phillips will be cheering for them to make that dream a reality... even if it means she loses a little bit of business.

As the owner of the BraBar & Panterie, Phillips recognizes the value of healthy breasts. Since 1996, the Des Meurons boutique has been one of the few shops in the city to offer certified mastectomy fittings. For Phillips and her staff of 12, working with women who have lost a breast to cancer is an overwhelming experience.

"One of the first times I took care of a lady who had the surgery, she thanked me and started to cry. She told me I made her feel whole again," recalls store manager Shirley Gibson. "We often hear that."

It's not only breast-cancer survivors who flock to get fitted at the BraBar. More than 70 per cent of women are thought to wear an incorrect size, so shop staff offer every customer a professional fit from their selection of high-quality bras from European and global manufacturers.

Finding the right size is a small change that Phillips says makes a big difference. Hugs, kisses and tears are all common reactions from customers, she says. Some even deliver baked goods to thank the staff.

"Once women have the right support, there's a lack of back aches. It doesn't damage breast tissue. They stand up straighter; it improves their outlook on life."

For Phillips, improving women's support has been a 10-year mission. Unfulfilled by her previous lingerie business and motivated by a vision of an underwear store run by women for women, Phillips opened The Bra Bar in 1996. "I decided I'd rather become a service to women, and help women in some way, rather than own what I considered to be a traditional retail store," Phillips says. "Everyone thought I was crazy, but I fooled them."

Her gamble paid off. Ten years later, the BraBar has a committed clientele, thanks in part to the average of 125 personal referrals it receives every month. Much of the buzz comes from women who struggled to find a comfortable bra on the mass market. "Lots of women who used to shop at department stores think that DD is all there is, and they have to fit into that," says Phillips. "But we carry up to JJ."

Bras are a highly personal business, and Phillips designed the BraBar's interior to make clients feel at home. Angel sconces and wrought-edged mirrors on the walls reflect the building's vintage architecture, and fitting and mastectomy consultation rooms are cleverly designed for maximum privacy.

For BraBar staff, no fit is too challenging. In fact, it's the most difficult fits that Phillips says offer the most reward. "One of the toughest would be a younger woman who had only one breast develop. She feels very ashamed because of how she looks to herself; she wants to look like her friends. We're helping her get past that... it's amazing."

As part of its efforts to celebrate breast health, the BraBar offers bra-fitting seminars to women's groups and supports women's charities. Phillips even started her own charity, Helping Hands Inc.

The charity delivered its first cheque last week, to a woman battling breast cancer for the second time. The gift will pay for hundreds of dollars in medical supplies to treat lymphedema, a common complication.

"A lot of women can't afford medication and other costs while going through this terrible period of their life," says Phillips. "We wanted to offer them that."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 10, 2006 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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